The Terminators

While chatting with a new club member, the spry septuagenarian we'll call Marge suddenly shakes her head as if objecting to a half-baked recipe for apple brown Betty or a particularly ill-advised knitting stitch.

"No, no, NO!" she interjects, cutting off her colleague in mid-sentence. "Listen, that's never going to work! Someone tries drinking a quart of liquor on top of pills, I guarantee they're going to throw up--the pills, the booze, everything." Pausing for emphasis, she smiles knowingly before administering the coup de grace. "Then they're going to wind up in the emergency room and, well, that's the last thing they want."

Nodding numbly, the gray-haired greenhorn ponders a problem that veteran members of the National Hemlock Society know only too well: It's a sad fact of life that committing nonviolent suicide is no piece of cake.

Borrowing their name from the fatal potion with which Socrates chose to kill himself, the Hemlockers believe that the terminally ill should be able to end their lives through assisted suicide. Armed with the credo, "good life, good death," the group maintains that "the only way to be reasonably certain of a good death is to plan it and plan, if it at all possible, when one is still healthy." Unfortunately, as some followers have learned the hard way, the road to heaven is paved with good intentions.

CONSIDER THE CASE of Peter Rosier, a Florida pathologist who last year found himself center stage in a worst-case scenario that the Hemlock faithful might have called "Don't Let This Happen to You." After hosting a lavish "last supper" for several family members, Rosier and his cancer-stricken wife Patti slipped away from their guests and into the bedroom, where Rosier then watched his terminally ill spouse swallow twenty Seconal capsules.

Panicking when the less-than-lethal dosage merely induced a coma, Rosier summoned a fellow physician to the scene and urged him to give the unconscious woman a fatal injection. After the doctor friend refused, Rosier frantically attempted to fulfill his wife's death wish by administering several morphine suppositories. When that too failed, Rosier's father-in-law finally decided to step in and take matters into his own hands. Accompanied by his two sons, the distraught father marched into the bedroom and manually smothered his comatose daughter.

Some months later--after Peter Rosier told a television reporter of his futile efforts to peddle both a book and a screenplay based on the traumatic circumstances of his wife's death--he found himself facing three counts of murder.

Although this tragedy of errors ended reasonably happily (a sympathetic jury acquitted the grieving husband of all charges), the Rosier incident served as a grim reminder to Hemlock diehards of how even the best-intentioned "good death" can go bad.

Editorializing about the sloppy execution of this particular suicide, Hemlock Society founder Derek Humphry reminds members in a recent issue of the organization's newsletter that "meticulous planning is required for self-deliverance from a serious illness. The Rosiers were casual and overconfident."

No stranger himself to the finer points of "self-deliverance," Humphry helped orchestrate the 1975 suicide of his first wife, Jean. Using drugs obtained illegally through an understanding London physician, he concocted a lethal Seconal-and-codeine cocktail that ended his spouse's agonizing battle with terminal cancer. After going public with his story (in the 1978 book Jean's Way, in which he refers to the death scene as "a rich and memorable experience"), Humphry migrated to Los Angeles, where he formed the Hemlock Society in 1980.

"We used to be very much an `elderly ladies' organization, but now we're pretty well balanced," says Humphry, whose group boasts 30,000 members. "The AIDS crisis has made younger people in their thirties and forties realize that death is a possibility at that age and that they should be prepared for it."

For those individuals who are truly hell-bent for heaven, the beginning of the end starts with Humphry's Let Me Die Before I Wake, a textbook of termination that has sold over 80,000 copies since 1981. The last word on self-willed sayonaras, the guidebook leads readers to the brink of the valley of death by mapping out lethal drug dosages. Other helpful hints on hastening the hereafter are provided via annotated case studies of people who've made premature exits from this life with varying degrees of gracefulness.

Writing about the 1980 suicide of Winston Churchill's daughter-in-law June, for instance, Humphry reports that after the valiant cancer patient washed down a fatal dose of Seconal and heroin with gin, she tied a plastic bag over her head--"a wise `fail-safe' procedure," readers are told.

And because American doctors no longer scribble prescriptions as freely as they once did, Humphry advises followers to feign insomnia during overseas vacations: After all, he says, "a doctor is less likely to worry about the consequences when prescribing for a foreigner."

Not surprisingly, some people find the Hemlock do-and-die philosophy a bitter pill to swallow. According to Humphry, the organization's biggest detractor has been the Roman Catholic Church, whose "right to life" movement strongly opposes letting mere mortals play God. And while a panel of doctors in a much-publicized New England Journal of Medicine report recently advocated physician-assisted suicide for the dying, the American medical community at large has been slow to endorse Hemlock goals--unlike their colleagues in the Netherlands, where lethal injections have been legally available to the dying for the past five years. But even those who agree in theory with the organization's aims can't help wondering whether a little of this particular brand of knowledge isn't a dangerous thing--especially if it should fall into the hands of an impressionable teen-ager, the emotionally disturbed or the criminally inclined.

"Abuse does not seem to be a problem here," counters Humphry, who claims that as far as he knows, a teen-age suicide has yet to be linked to Let Me Die Before I Wake. "The techniques described in this book require planning, preparation and prescription drugs. These are not things that teen-agers go about doing. When teen-agers commit suicide they tend to do it in an angry, hasty way--they're ill-prepared.

"If this information was abused, we'd deeply regret it, but we'd still go on. Hundreds of people have taken advantage of our information when terminally ill and have killed themselves--so we have done a good deal of good. We may have done some harm, but then what doesn't do harm? A knife is used to cut your meat, but it can also be used to hack somebody to death. Life's like that. We do the greater good."

IT'S ONE OF those beautiful days that make you feel great to be alive, but as twenty-odd people filter into a room at the Scottsdale Senior Center this Saturday morning, that's probably the last thing on their minds. Early arrivals kill time by showing off snapshots of the grandkids or making small talk as they congregate around a table loaded with self-deliverance literature. Spying an article on the lethal injections available to the dying Dutch, a woman rhapsodizes about "wonderful Holland," making it clear her fascination with the country has more to do with lilies than tulips.

But this is the United States, not "wonderful Holland." "In America we treat our pets better than we treat our people," grouses one member. "When a dog's dying, you're allowed to put him to sleep."

For those unenlightened souls who've never given a thought to inducing eternal slumber in humans, the group's frank talk about the Big Sleep can provide a rather rude awakening.

After relating how he'd recently discovered his aged mother dead in her bed, one member confesses that he'd foolishly dialed the 911 emergency number. "I just wasn't thinking," he continues, explaining that despite the gaffe, he'd been lucky--finding no signs of life, paramedics made no attempt to revive his mother. "When someone dies, who should we call?" asks a fellow Hemlocker.

As nervous laughter fills the room, the man answers, "Whoever takes the longest to get there."

During another gathering, one member sparks a spirited debate after sharing her ongoing telephone relationship with a young woman who had initially phoned the group asking for literature. Explaining that the woman was not terminally ill but simply suffering from constant pain as the result of an accident, the member expresses serious qualms about dealing with her, especially since the woman had admitted to a suicide attempt prior to the accident. "I haven't figured out what to do with her. She asked me if I could get her some pills. After I told her Hemlock doesn't work like that, she called back: If she got the pills, would